Four years of shooting for stars has led a team of international scientists to discover 10 new extra-solar planets.
Rachel Street, UCSB postdoctoral fellow and scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network in Goleta, and Tim Lister, LCOGT project scientist, are working in collaboration with a team of astronomers from observatories and labs across the world in search of exoplanets – planets outside our solar system.
According to Street, determining whether or not a faint twinkle in the night sky is in fact a planet depends on characteristics such as its radius, size and mass.
“The 10 new planets are all of a type known as ‘gas giant’ planets, which means most of their radius is composed of a thick gaseous atmosphere,” Street said. “They vary in size but are roughly similar in mass and radius to Jupiter, one of our solar system’s gas giant planets. Since these planets orbit very close to their host stars, this class of planets are known collectively as ‘hot Jupiters.'”
The team used the transit method – a process by which scientists observe eclipse-like moments where planets move in front of nearby stars, thus partially reducing the star’s brightness – to confirm the status of suspected planets, Street said. By observing the lighting changes of a star, scientists can calculate the relative orbits of possible planets to their stars, she said.
Street said two instruments, located on the Canary Islands and South Africa, were used by LCOGT to capture the images of the night sky. These robotic instruments, featuring eight lenses and eight cameras, are part of a series known as SuperWASP, an upgraded version of the Wide Angle Search for Planets, Lister said.
“Its like a paparazzi camera, except it has a large lens that monitors the brightness of every star,” Street said.
The original WASP was an instrument with only one lens and one camera, Lister said.
According to Street, the data from the instruments is then sent to SuperWASP, the United Kingdom’s top exoplanet detection association, which is made up of eight academic institutions from around the world.
“The SuperWASP data is received, processed and analyzed by SuperWASP member institutions in the UK,” Street said. “The results are then held in a private database, which can be accessed online by members of the association.”
Lister said that the SuperWASP has helped them discover many transiting plants, and he hopes it will continue its progress and find more.
“The SuperWASP has found over 15 to 46 transiting planets so far, so that gives us more data to examine,” he said. “Hopefully, we get more planets.”
A new mission, called the Kepler project, will possibly launch in 2009, Lister said. The project’s goal is to look for Earth-like planets. Although it is unknown whether life exists on other planets, Street said she was hopeful.
“It’s exciting to think that there are so many solar systems, so Earth may not be the unique one in having life,” she said.
Street said she thinks the team behind the SuperWASP project has worked hard and that their efforts are paying off.
“I hope, in the near future, we will discover a wide range of new exoplanet systems,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see what they teach us about planet formation.”